Top two in league of their own as Arsenal and Liverpool capitulate

Irresistible form of Chelsea and Manchester United has consigned the chasing pack to being also-rans. By Sam Wallace
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When Ashley Cole said ruefully after Chelsea's victory on Wednesday night that he had "suffered a few times" at Bolton Wanderers in the past, you knew what he was talking about. Now the former Arsenal full-back is playing for a club who do not seem to suffer no matter where they go and, just 15 games into the season, appear to have seen off every rival for the Premiership bar one.

Wednesday night was when the Premiership title race, with autumn's leaves still on the floor, turned into a two-way battle of nerves between Cole's Chelsea and a Manchester United team who lead the table by three points. There are 11 points separating Jose Mourinho's team from third place this season, last campaign they only dropped 23 points over the entire 38 games.

The question for the rest of the pack chasing these two is: have we lost it already? It is a question that could be asked most pertinently at Anfield and Craven Cottage on Wednesday night when the two teams expected to challenge United and Chelsea found themselves in similar states of disarray. For Liverpool and Arsenal it has not just been the scale of their season's collapse, it has been the manner of it, too. Injuries, the disappointing response of new signings and players forced to improvise in unfamiliar roles - by the end of Wednesday both seemed to be on the point of surrender.

As Liverpool laboured to a goalless draw against Portsmouth, the Kop even cheered when Jermaine Pennant was summoned to the bench six minutes from the end - and of the two characters whom Rafael Benitez took a chance on this season he has been the better behaved. Craig Bellamy missed the match for a date in court, he was acquitted of assaulting a woman but his time might have been better used elsewhere.

By the end of the game it looked like a depressingly familiar sight for Liverpool fans who might have hoped a corner had been turned in the summer. Steven Gerrard trying to win the game on his own - he almost did with a header - and Jamie Carragher playing in central midfield. Add to that Danny Guthrie, a 19-year-old substitute, and Nabil El Zhar, 20, a Moroccan making his debut and you see the depth of Liverpool's woe.

On Sky Sports on Wednesday night, the former Arsenal striker Paul Merson struggled to come up with a way of articulating his disbelief at Arsène Wenger's team selection and the unsuitability of one player in particular to fulfil the role that had been asked of him. He settled for saying that the midfielder Alexandre Song looked "like a fish up a tree". And the figurative fish in question has only played four games previously this season, and only one of them in the Premiership.

What on earth is the matter with Arsenal? If Wenger's intention was to shake up his team after defeat to Bolton with players such as Song and Justin Hoyte, or to rest Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Eboué, then he only ended up proving another new rule of the Premiership. No matter how big the gap grows between the elite and the rest of the division it is now plain that, as United, for example, have found to their cost over recent years, the second string of the big teams is not enough to beat smaller Premiership sides.

Wenger's side are only two points off third place with a game in hand so the scale of the crisis in terms of Champions' League qualification is hardly irresolvable. And the status of the manager himself is, much to the annoyance of some of his peers at other clubs, never in question. But it begs the question: what kind of side are Arsenal trying to be this season? An enigmatic cup team with wayward league form? Sorry, but that was last year. And, as Sir Alex Ferguson has pointed out in the past, they cannot claim to be "in transition" forever.

Tomorrow's home game against Tottenham is the weekend's main draw although some might argue that playing a club that has not beaten them for seven years is hardly the stiffest test that Arsenal could expect to face. But Wenger does have a habit of turning around the most desperate situations with a performance that makes everyone wonder what it was they were worried about. In September his team beat Manchester United after losing to Manchester City and drawing with Middlesbrough.

There was no pity for Wenger from Martin Jol yesterday although there was a little understanding from the Tottenham manager. "Why should I feel pity for him?" he said. "He has lost some matches - but in England, it is always possible to lose two away matches in a row. If it were three or four, it would be different. Or, if it was at home, I would be more surprised.

"But they are like us. They are not so good away as they are at home. But Arsenal, I feel, still have a great team and this season I still feel they play the best football in England. But results-wise if you don't score - and Arsenal do struggle sometimes to score - then it is difficult to win the games you play. They have played the best football in England for six years and he has built his teams from and around young players. He has rebuilt his team five times."

If the rest are out of it then what about the two who remain? "Chelsea are a very different proposition to Arsenal - and to Manchester United," Bolton's Kevin Davies said. "They are strong physically and very well organised. United have more attacking flair but Chelsea are a more solid outfit."

Solid has been enough to win the Premiership for the last two years, it seems the only question left to be answered this season is whether it will deliver Mourinho three titles in a row.

Chelsea v Man Utd: The second half of the season

Chelsea's Jose Mourinho has claimed that Manchester United have a tougher fixture list in the second half of the season. United have to travel to the "big three" plus Newcastle and across town against Manchester City.

Chelsea

10 December Arsenal (h)

20 January 2007 Liverpool (a)

7 April Tottenham (h)

9 April West Ham (a)

14 April Man Utd (h)

21 April Newcastle (a)

5 May Arsenal (a)

Manchester United

1 January 2007 Newcastle (a)

21 January Arsenal (a)

4 February Tottenham (a)

3 March Liverpool (a)

14 April Chelsea (a)

5 May Man City (a)

A Rough Guide

Chelsea won at Reading 1-0 (14 Oct), Man Utd drew 1-1 (23 Sep); Chelsea won at Sheffield United 2-0 (28 Oct), Man Utd won 2-1 (18 Nov); Man Utd won 1-0 at Blackburn (11 Nov), Chelsea won 2-0 (27 Aug); Chelsea beat Liverpool 1-0 at home (17 Sep), Man Utd won 2-0 (22 Oct); Man Utd won at Bolton 4-0 (28 Oct), Chelsea won there 1-0 (29 Nov).

Points mean prizes: How winning the title is getting more difficult

The combined points total of the top two after 15 games shows how much harder it has become to win the Premiership, particularly since the arrival of Jose Mourinho

1992-93 First year of Premiership

Pos.Pts/Total.Pts

1. Arsenal 29, 2. Blackburn 27 = 56

1998-99 United's Treble-winning season

1. Aston Villa 30, 2. Man Utd 29 = 59

2004-05 Mourinho's first season at Chelsea

1. Chelsea 36, 2. Arsenal 31 = 67

2005-06 Mourinho's second season at Chelsea

1. Chelsea 40, 2. Man Utd 30 = 70

2006-07 This season

1. Man Utd 38, 2. Chelsea 35 = 73

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